In the fall, when the spring calves are weaned and removed from the cow herd, most producers walk through their herd at pasture or at home and think about which cows they should cull. Once the candidates are chosen, another decision is made whether to sell them immediately or feed them for the next few months to gain weight. Whatever the final decision, it is based on pure economics.

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There could be many reasons beef cows are culled, but at the top of most cull lists are open cows. After all, it’s the lifeblood of everything that generates cow-calf revenue and profits: All cows should be pregnant within 80 to 90 days after calving in order to drop a calf at the same time each year. Latecomers that often breed/calving outside a restricted breeding/calving season are also potential candidates for culling. They tend to upset the perennial generation of weaned calves of uniform size and heavier weights which translate into higher income for the operation.

I asked a longtime producer who runs a herd of 400 Angus/Simmental cows if there were any exceptions to the open cow cull rule. He said that even if she is the best cow in the herd and guaranteed to breed next season, she is clearly a devalued item, because:

1. Has not calved a calf that generates a penny of salable income;

2. Will then incur a bill of at least $3 a day for food and lodging costs during the winter (200 days) or a liability of $600; And

3. It still maintains an attractive current reform value, which allows good reproduced heifers of lower market value to enter the herd.

While being open may not be the cow’s fault in the first place, this producer has complied with his culling guidelines. For example, because much of the breeding season for this producer’s cow herd falls during the hottest days of summer, many seemingly infertile cows (as well as breeding bulls) may actually be suffering from heat stress-related infertility. My friend says it’s bad luck, but these cows need to be put down.

Age takes a toll

Apart from open cows, eliminating old cows from the herd is another good reason. This is because healthy, fertile beef cows have a viable reproductive life of approximately seven to eight years. Overall fertility decreases by age 10 and drops dramatically after age 12. Also, as young cows get old, their bodies slowly deteriorate; teeth break and wear down, and periodic digestive disturbances negatively affect nutrient absorption. Nipples and breasts collapse due to good milk production, furthermore uterine disorders increase and repeat. General lameness becomes more frequent.

Whether to sell these open old beef cows immediately or put them in a drylot to make a couple of hundred pounds is based on sheer economics, as illustrated in the accompanying spreadsheet.

Metrics are based on: (1) feeding mature beef cows (1,300 lbs) to gain 200 lbs. in 60 days, (2) feed them a typical cull diet, (3) cull feed efficiency = 10 lbs. dm diet/lb. gain or ADG = 3.23 lbs/head/day (4) yardage = $0.50/head/day and (5) breakeven cull cow selling price is based on live body weight.

As a matter of personal management, the aforementioned cow-calf operator sold a truckload of old cull cows during the late summer and received $1.28 – $1.33/lb. for its 1,400 lbs. cull cows. I anticipate that the value of the cull market in November/December could decline as a significant volume of cull cows traditionally enter the market. The spreadsheet may indicate that the best time to sell cull cows is still within a couple of weeks of the upcoming weaning season.

Despite any marketing opportunity for cull cows, there are usually about 15-20% of cows in most cow herds that are expected to be culled. Therefore, producers should always make good decisions based on their pure economic status; cull or cull the cows that don’t make a profit, and keep the majority of the cows that do.

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